(RNS) — It’s hard to forget your first time in the ICU.
Strangers obscured by masks and gowns, beds surrounded by wires, constant beeping — it can feel like you’ve stumbled into a warped, disorienting alternate universe.
It’s true for patients — and it’s true for their loved ones.
For decades, hospital chaplains have offered hope and solace to patients and family alike as they navigate the trauma of being in the intensive care unit. But the impact of those efforts is often intangible, hard to measure and generally anecdotal.
But thanks to a new study of ICU patients’ family members and loved ones, data now confirms what many chaplains already know: Proactive, enhanced spiritual care leads to better spiritual and psychological outcomes.
“We wanted to improve the well-being of ICU family members because there’s so much distress that they face, and we were one of the very few studies that have been able to successfully do that,” said Dr. Alexia Torke, who led the study conducted by the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Medicine.
The randomized, single-blind trial took place across an Indiana medical center’s five ICUs from August 2018 until November 2021. The 128 participants who completed the trial were surrogate decision-makers whose loved ones were ICU patients unable to make medical decisions.
The study found that surrogates who received intensive spiritual care had more spiritual well-being and satisfaction with spiritual care and were “less likely to have anxiety and spiritual distress compared to those in control group,” according to Torke, a research scientist at Indiana University Center for Aging Research. Surrogates in the intervention group were “three times more likely to have a clinically important reduction in anxiety,” according to the study.
When Paul Galchutt, a research chaplain at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, heard the trial’s results, he told Religion News Service, “I clicked my heels a few times.” Galchutt described this kind of data “like a V8 engine for the kind of work we do,” because it provides hard numbers to tell the story of what chaplains do and why it matters.
The trial studied two groups: a control group receiving typical care from the medical center’s chaplains, and an intervention group that would receive intensive spiritual care from one of five outside chaplains. In the first group, surrogates saw a chaplain an average of two times during their relative’s stay, whereas the second group had an average of four visits per stay.
Chaplains in the enhanced spiritual care group also made proactive contact to schedule visits and implemented a spiritual care assessment and intervention framework to evaluate surrogates in several areas, including relationships, self-worth and meaning. During their first visit, chaplains asked at least one pre-written question from each of the categories, then adapted the conversation to best suit the surrogate’s needs.